In late June, articles began appearing in the Jewish press announcing a visit by US university presidents and chancellors to a seminar in Israel planned for 1-9 July. According to a statement issued by the seminar organizer, Project Interchange, the reported aim of the one-week delegation was to “explore opportunities for academic and research collaboration, learn about state-of-the-art research initiatives, and study the unique academia-industry ties that have turned Israel into the ‘Start Up Nation’” (“Leading US university presidents to explore innovation and academic cooperation with Israel,” 29 June 2012).
Among the scheduled delegates were Randy Woodson, chancellor of North Carolina State University; Linda P. B. Katehi, chancellor of University of California-Davis; Karen Haynes, president of California State University-San Marcos; Elliot Hirshman, president of San Diego State University; Dorothy Leland, chancellor of University of California-Merced; Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College; Lawrence Biondi, president of St. Louis University; Harvey Perlman, chancellor of University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Louis Agnese, president of University of the Incarnate Word.
Charles Schusterman, whose Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation provided financial support for the delegation, describes Project Interchange seminars as vehicles for “unbiased study and reflection” that supply a “balanced foundation for understanding Israel’s history, diverse make-up, and strategic objectives” (“University heads assemble for Project Interchange reception,” Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, 16 November 2009).
Seminar participants have similarly described Project Interchange delegations as occasions for “unrestricted” dialogue and debate that promote tolerance” and “diversity” (“ASUN president brings ideas back from Israel,” Daily Nebraskan, 14 June 2006).
A close look at the facts, however, reveals an Orwellian thrust to the discourse. Project Interchange is sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, an unreservedly Zionist organization. It was founded in 1982 by the late Debra Berger, an Israel enthusiast committed to broadening international support for Zionism. Its major funder, Charles Schusterman, is himself an ardent Zionist as well as a pro-Israel philanthropist. Since its founding, Project Interchange claims to have invited to its seminars thousands of participants perceived as influential in areas that may serve to steer public policy, opinion formation and community action in directions favorable to strengthening Israel.
A Birthright tour for adults
Project Interchange organizes Birthright Israel tours for adults (Birthright Israel is a program supported by the Israeli government to provide free trips to Israel for young North American Jews). Project Interchange delegations meet Israeli politicians, academics, clergy, military and legal figures, scientists and health professionals, all of whom are keen on extending pro-Zionist sentiment worldwide. In what is clearly linked to the larger Israeli hasbara (propaganda) initiative to improve the faltering image of Israel internationally, Project Interchange has stepped up its efforts in recent years by recruiting more seminar delegates and encouraging them upon return to write articles, give interviews, enter into business deals with Israeli companies and forge ties with Zionist organizations in their home communities.
One such compliant delegate is Cornell University President David J. Skorton, now spearheading his university’s controversial arrangement with the Haifa-based Israel Institute of Technology (also known as the Technion) to build an applied science and technology campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island (“Professors question Cornell-Technion partnership,” The Cornell Daily Sun, 2 March 2012).
In exchange for his cooperation, the AJC recently presented Skorton with its Avraham Harman Leadership Award, given annually to an “individual who has dedicated significant efforts to strengthening ties between American Jews and Israel” (“AJC honors Cornell University President David Skorton,” American Jewish Committee, 21 June 2012).
Upon his return from a 2010 Project Interchange delegation, Skorton and his wife, Cornell biomedical science professor Robin Davisson, posted several blog entries about their trip in the Chronicle of Higher Education. These made clear their ensuing commitment less to advancing humanistic education than to making a Faustian pact with the apartheid system central to contemporary Israeli policy.
Rather than exposing true facts about the wall Israel is building in the West Bank, Jewish-only roads and towns, illegal settlements, collective punishment, second-class Palestinian citizenship, and Israel’s countless other violations of international law, Skorton and Davisson spent significant time denouncing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and insisting that US universities reject calls to boycott Israeli academic institutions. “It is hard for us to imagine a scenario in which a boycott … would be constructive and helpful, as opposed to divisive and destructive,” they wrote (“Skorton and Davisson blog from Israel on higher ed’s role in Middle East peace,” 23 June 2010).
Skorton and Davisson’s views are echoed by University of Miami President and former US health secretary Donna Shalala, who told The Jerusalem Post, “I joined the presidents of the major American universities to denounce the boycott of Israeli academics. I sent a personal letter to the presidents of universities here, as did the other presidents, promising there would be no boycott in the United States and that Israeli scholars would always be welcome” (“‘There will never be a boycott of Israel’,” 12 July 2010).
Shalala has referred to such initiatives as anti-Semitic, stating: “Whether it’s divestment or a boycott against Israeli academics [sic], it’s inappropriate and not worthy of any educational institution. I know of no American university that would support such a boycott” (“OSU President Ray among delegation of university heads on Israel visit,” Oregon State University blog, 15 July 2010).
Project Interchange’s calls for “balanced” understanding and “unbiased” study are thus deceptively one-sided. This disingenuousness is further evidenced by the limited exposure Project Interchange delegates receive to Palestinians. Rather than being exposed to Palestinian suffering, the delegates are encouraged to think of Palestinians as the aggressors. For example, they are taken to the Israeli town of Sderot “to view the city that has been under fire from rockets from Gaza” (“US college heads visit Israel, seek collaboration opportunities,” JTA, 4 July 2012).
It is little wonder that Cornell President Skorton upholds Project Interchange’s bald assertion that Israel is a “modern, Western, Middle Eastern, democratic, Jewish state,” and that he has been willing to propagate the pro-apartheid view that Jews and Palestinians are “two increasingly separated communities [whose] differences of perspective and narrative … may be intractable.” Accordingly, not only will the conflict never be resolved, but for 2012 delegate Louis Agnese, it is all the Palestinians’ fault. Thanks to the trip, he said, “I have a better understanding of why the peace talks collapsed in 2000. The Palestinians do not want to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state” (“US Catholic college presidents connect with colleagues in Israel,” The Boston Pilot, 6 July 2012).
Although Project Interchange purports to foster “cultural diversity,” “dialogue” and “tolerance,” then, its underlying objective is to dissimulate legitimate criticism of Zionism and Israel and discourage support for Palestine solidarity and resistance.
US university leaders are conducive to the Project Interchange agenda, not necessarily because they are unfailing Zionists, but because Project Interchange’s pitch for collaborative “entrepreneurship and innovation” promises, if inconclusively, to help resolve massive budgetary crises facing many US institutions of higher learning. The military industry so integral to the Israeli academy, comprising disciplines ranging from physics and nanotechnology, pharmacology, molecular genetics and opthalmology to water and agricultural “security” studies, communication and counter-terrorism studies, is seen as a potential source of funds.
Writing in the aforementioned article published in Yeshiva World, North Carolina State University Chancellor Woodson aptly demonstrates the cynicism of this approach: “Sharing information on the strong ties between higher education and industry will provide meaningful examples for NC State’s continued efforts to support a strong economy in North Carolina.” The fact that Israeli industry is complicit in ethnic cleansing and other human rights violations and contraventions of international law, doesn’t seem to matter to Woodson and his colleagues — for whom profit and greed have apparently trumped all sense of ethics and social justice.
Project Interchange’s agenda is seductive, though, with major CEOs and venture capitalists as well as the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities jumping on the bandwagon in pursuit of contracts with Israeli academia and industry. Their cooperation conveniently dovetails with Israel’s desperate drive to prove the necessity of its devastating domestic policies, as it becomes further isolated economically and politically on account of growing international condemnation of its harsh treatment of Palestinians and of its self-serving manipulation of US foreign policy, all in the wake of the Arab uprisings and increasing petrodollar instability, which have challenged the sustainability of US and Israeli regional hegemony.
The pro-Zionist promotion of collaborative US-Israeli projects is indeed but one manifestation of hasbara. Another is a largely neoconservative effort to ensure that US dominance in the Middle East — especially over diminishing oil reserves — retains a strong Israeli component.
While scholars as diverse as Cheryl Rubenberg, James Petras and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have argued that alliance with Israel is essentially unnecessary to US national interests, neocons and their followers are dubbing Israel the techno-scientific “Start Up Nation” with the aim not only of making Israel more attractive to potential investors but of realigning and reintegrating the Israeli national interest with that of the 21st century United States as envisioned by the neocon purveyors of the Project for the New American Century.
With respect to the US academy, this scenario presents compounding problems. Project Interchange’s collaboration with Israel willfully implicates universities, their faculty and students in the illegal practices of apartheid and war criminality. One may now refer to Cornell as an accomplice in the development of drone technology (a specialty of the Technion) and in structural discrimination against non-Jews (a feature of all Israeli universities). Such collaboration will also likely exacerbate the longstanding suppression of campus speech critical of Zionism, not to mention capitalism, at participating institutions.
Corporate donors do not take well to criticism and tend to use their financial clout to silence and intimidate students and professors who question their practices. Pro-Zionist funders are especially vigilant against scholarship that would expose and criticize their ties to unsavory Israeli military practices, and they do not welcome Palestinian, Arab and Muslim perspectives generally.
The current epidemic of US academic freedom violations against anti-Zionist and pro-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) professors is directly connected to such conditions, as is the growing influence of youth-oriented and campus-based hasbara groups like Birthright, Israel on Campus Coalition and Campus Watch, whose mandates are, at least in part, to train pro-Zionist students to spy on their professors.
It is surely no coincidence that four such cases involve universities within the California system: almost half the delegates to Project Interchange’s 2011 University Presidents Seminar were from California institutions, and an entire April 2012 delegation was comprised entirely of faculty from University of California-Irvine.
With calculated candor, these universities have tried to justify their negative actions in the name of corporate personhood or the fight against renewed anti-Semitism, as did the Technion when suing Google last year for hosting a blog critical of the university’s medical program (“Technion takes Google to court to shut down blog critical of medical program,” Haaretz, 6 May 2011).
Because the hasbara movement is exceedingly well-funded, we can only expect to see this pattern continuing unless the collaborations are halted. Whereas it may be unrealistic to issue a boycott call against complicit US institutions, it may be possible to censure the most egregious violators. The BDS movement, working with Students for Justice in Palestine and like-minded campus groups, might launch such an effort by helping raise consciousness among students and faculty nationwide, like during the campaign against South African apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s.
Demonstrations, teach-ins and negative publicity and letter-writing campaigns could be organized, imploring administrations to reject project collaboration with Israel and to reverse the institutional privatization facilitating it. In addition to galvanizing Palestine solidarity on campuses, these prospective efforts offer a golden opportunity for providing the wider, more sustained public education about Zionism and Israel so eminently necessary if Israel is to be prevented from continuing unheeded along its present, highly destructive path.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article wrongly attributed the statement “Martin Luther King’s ideals of equality, integration, peace, collaboration and the value of education” to Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum; it has since been removed. The Electronic Intifada apologizes for the error.
Terri Ginsberg is a film scholar and activist based in New York City. She holds a doctorate cinema studies and has taught at numerous US institutions of higher learning, including NYU, Rutgers, Dartmouth, Ithaca College, and Brooklyn College. Her publications include Historical Dictionary of Middle Eastern Cinema (2010), Holocaust Film: The Political Aesthetics of Ideology (2007), A Companion to German Cinema (2012), a special film/media issue of International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies (2009), and a special Middle East teaching issue of Arab Studies Quarterly (2011). In 2008, she was fired from North Carolina State University for supporting Palestinian and Muslim perspectives. Her essay on Palestinian women’s cinema will appear shortly in the first-ever book on that topic, to be published by Shashat and Birzeit University Press in Palestine.